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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Office Hours with Dr. Jim > Dealing with Past

Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

 



How to Deal with Your Past and Deal with Your Partner's Past

Quick Access:
Dealing with Past and Talking About It

Getting Over Your Past

How do two people talk about or get over each other’s past?

 

This is a hot topic, and I don’t mean that in a good way. This is a subject that’ll almost assuredly affect every reader of this article.

Let’s face it, everyone has a past and knowing too little or too much about a partner’s past can trouble and gnaw at you to the extent that it kills a budding relationship or handicaps an existing one.

It’s unrealistic to think you can’t or won’t ever feel jealous or judgmental about something in your partner’s past. That said, it’s also unrealistic to think that your partner’s past is something you can’t or won’t ever learn to accept and get over.

“We All Get Jealous or Judgmental”
Jealousy is a common reaction when we imagine our partner with someone else. Men and women show different but predictable patterns about what makes them most jealous. For example, Men generally have difficulties committing when a partner has a history of sexual infidelity. In other words, men get hung up on women’s past physical intimacies. Women also get caught up in past history as well. For instance, when a woman’s love interest has a history of cheating, it’s not so much the sexual activity that bothers her as much as it is the possibility that he may have fallen in love and shared strong emotional intimacy. Over all, women are much more upset when their partners have fallen in love with someone else than they are if he only had sex with the person. Of course, there are countless other examples of things that instigate jealousy. There are other possible issues in a partner’s past that can cause us to feel angry, resentful and judgmental. Consider issues like substance use, poor money management, poor relationship with their families or even a criminal record. The point is that every couple can usually find something negative on which to fixate if feeling jealous and judgmental are the goals. Instead of fixating on events that make us jealous, it’s better to fixate on how the outcomes of those events have brought happiness to you. That probably sounds crazy to many readers, so let me explain.

“The Past Created the Present”
The trick to resolving issues with a partner’s past is use the metaphor of a row of dominos. A falling line of dominos is a progression of one event causing another. Well, the same holds true for how people meet and establish relationships. Instead of focusing on each other’s past choices, it’s best to focus on where those past choices have lead. In other words, it is the combination of two people’s past choices that brought them together. She and he both are who they are because of their past choices. The two may never have met and come together had either one done something differently. It all boils down to this simple thought – both of your pasts brought you to a happy present.

With this in mind, I’d reflect on that thought whenever I felt insecure about myself or the relationship. Hopefully, people grow and mature from their past mistakes. For instance, mismanaging money can teach the value of good credit and illicit substance use can teach appreciation for good health and an unwavering support system. And past relationships – happy or not – should teach us about what we truly want and need in a partner. The point again is that our past defines our present.

“Appreciating the Present Enables us to Accept the Past”
Don’t sit and ruminate over your partner’s past, if it bothers you. Use that tugging feeling right now as a means of deepening the bond with your partner. The fact that your partner revealed a potentially embarrassing or painful past indicates trust and openness towards you. Talk about what’s on your mind and be patient and open-minded enough to listen to what your partner has to say in response. You’ll probably find yourself experiencing emotions other than jealousy – such as  increased love, trust and admiration towards your partner given what they endured, what they learned and how they blossomed into the person they are today. You fell in love with this person because of who they are. You’ll know it’s lasting love if you can love and accept the entire person and appreciate how they became the person they are today..                            

How do I get over my past so I can have a great relationship now?

Dealing with a partner’s past can be difficult (see last week’s installment: “How do two people talk about or get over each other’s past?”). However, it can be even more daunting coming to terms with your own past. This is especially true if you have low self-esteem or when you haven’t revealed anything to your partner (or anyone else) about your past until now.

Before you can know how to explain and discuss your past with your partner, you must come to understand and accept it yourself. Doing this involves pondering two questions:

“How am I feeling about my past?”
This question gets at your level of self-esteem. Strong self-esteem will help your personal growth and your relationships. A low self-esteem will definitely hinder growth and acceptance. The key is to carefully contemplate whether all you feel is shame when you think about your past. We all regret something in our past, but the critical question is whether shame is all you feel when you think about that certain something. If it is, then you need to ponder this next question.

“Have I learned anything from my mistakes?”
The real issue is not whether you have a horrible past, but rather what you learned from your past choices?  People are the sum of all of the experiences that came before their present. Maturing is really getting through and learning tough life lessons. Remember no education is free, and our mistakes are tuition bills for those life lessons. This isn’t meant to absolve responsibility for mistakes, rather I say this to mean that we should face our past choices and take responsibility for them. That process also involves self-forgiveness and the strength to admit a choice was wrong and also a learning opportunity. If your mistakes haven’t taught you anything positive, then you’re bound to repeat those mistakes.

Pondering these questions doesn’t mean that you should get into heavy self-disclosure with people you’ve just met online or even with new friends. But talking about your past with a committed partner helps you come to terms with your past choices. It gives you an opportunity to express to your partner what you have learned and how you intend to apply those lessons to a life together. The person may not like or approve of your past, but they will either be able to accept your past and love you for who you are today, or the person will not accept your past and leave. If the person leaves, then they were probably not right for you anyway.

Here’s some practical advice about thinking about your past and discussing it with your partner – always refer to what you’ve learned from the past and how it has affected you for the better in the present. It’s not psychobabble, it’s simply the difference between choosing between a positive and optimistic attitude versus a self-defeating one.

For Example:

Never Say This:
Do Say This:
“I’m not proud of…” “I’ve learned important lessons from my past choices and mistakes, such as…”
“You won’t want to hear this…” “I want to share something deeply personal and private with you…”
“I used to be…” “I am who I am today because of what I went through …”
“I’ve changed…” “I’ve matured…”
“I’m embarrassed to say that…” “I’m fortunate and proud that I overcame…”

As for your own feelings, there typically will be some apprehension since sharing anything personal is a risky venture and means being vulnerable to another. Being vulnerable can be unsettling to say the least, especially if you already lower levels of self esteem. That said, vulnerability is really a sign of strength and it is a gift partners give to each other. Vulnerability will strengthen your relationship by strengthening the bond and sense of trust you have with a partner.

Being open and vulnerable is worth the risk. What isn’t worth the energy and trouble is being preoccupied and unforgiving about your past choices. You’ll miss the present by focusing solely on the past.And if you miss the present then you haven’t learned the life lessons and applied them in your life today to make better choices for the good of all.


 

Dr. James Houran's "Office Hours with Dr. Jim" column is published every Monday.


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